What is a citizen suit?

The enforcement mechanisms of the environmental statutes in the 1960s were both cumbersome and ineffective.  As interest in environmental protection grew, awareness of the lack of adequate enforcement also increased. This awareness led to a significant enhancement of enforcement tools in the 1970s as well as the creation of citizen suits which were intended to be actions by “private attorneys general”—that is, lawsuits that were brought under federal environmental statutes in the public interest by citizens seeking to enforce violations of environmental laws.

The citizen suit was initially launched as part of the Clean Air Act (“CAA”). Thereafter, similar provisions were included in most new federal environmental statutes or amendments to existing statutes including the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”), the Clean Water Act (“CWA”), the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (“RCRA”), and many others. 

The citizen suit sections of the various environmental statutes are virtually identical, being patterned closely after the CAA’s.  For the most part, those sections authorize “any person” to commence suit to enforce the requirements of the acts against “any person” alleged to be in violation.

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